Lawrence slammed the phone into its cradle. A small piece holding it to the wall snapped and it smashed to the floor, where it spewed black and silver electronics. It squawked, once, twice, and died. Lawrence kicked the handset. "Stupid piece of junk," he said. It skidded across the tile floor and under the computer in the corner of his kitchen. He stomped over to the PC and plopped into a chair. Twisting his lips, he raised his voice two octaves, mimicking Miriam’s last call, "Let’s just be friends. There really isn’t any, you know, chemistry."
He sucked in a mouthful of air, held it in his lungs, and then slowly exhaled. They had met on the Internet -- she loved to surf too. So much in common -- until she dumped him. It was gonna be another empty weekend. Story of my life, he thought.
The dark screen in front of him reflected his image. High, shiny forehead, nose too large for his face, no chin. He stabbed at the power button. The screen flickered, turned blue, and the speakers trumpeted. He rolled his mouse and clicked. No e-mail. Hadn’t been any since he filtered out the spam. Maybe he’d take the filter off. That way he’d get something. Anything. Maybe he’d e-mail Miriam in a day or two. After all, he thought, "no" really means "maybe" when dealing with women. Until then, at least there was the Net. He clicked an icon and navigated to the Web.
A pop-up ad screamed, "How’s Your Love Life?" in inch high, 3D, flashing, multicolored letters.
"Sucks," he said. He clicked the pop-up’s 'close' button.
Two-inch high, animated, neon, 32 bit true color answered.
"No chemistry? No problem! We can help!"
He hesitated. "Nah," he said to himself and clicked 'close'.
The monitor flickered. Slowly, a black and red website painted from the top of the screen. In high resolution, the profile of an ebon cat appeared. The cat sat on its haunches. Slowly, regally, the feline turned its head. Lawrence leaned toward the computer screen. Green, the cat’s eyes were emerald green. The cat raised a front paw and preened. Pink tongue caressed black fur, slowly, sensually. Lawrence blinked. The cat’s features elongated, flowed, changed into those of a woman. Wild, raven hair, high, exotic cheekbones -- and flashing, emerald eyes. She parted full red lips and her voice purred from the speakers. "Welcome to Seifer’s Dot Com, Lawrence," she said.
Lawrence’s mouth sagged open.
The sultry voice continued, "My name is Lu, and I’m here to tell you that at Seifer’s, we offer products and services ordinary Internet sites can’t. We can heat up your life, provide you with that spark, that chemistry you desire -- so they will desire you."
He didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t breathe.
"No more lonely weekends, Lawrence. No more ‘just friends.’ Click the Products icon and I’ll show you the way."
He clicked the icon. The screen changed and dozens of product thumbnails appeared.
"At Seifer’s we know the devil’s in the details. All our products are hand-made of the finest materials. Each guaranteed to deliver what you desire, to turn you from a lonely guy into a lady-killer -- or double your money back. So you see Lawrence, when you deal with Seifer’s, what do you have to lose?"
The bell rang early the next morning. Lawrence threw on an old, brown terrycloth robe, pushed his feet into worn, matching slippers and padded to his front door. Squinting, he placed an eye against a peephole. No one there. He opened the door a few inches and a box wrapped in brown paper tumbled into his apartment. He peeked down the hallway. No delivery man. He rubbed his bald scalp and inspected the package. Red and black label, picture of a cat on the front. Already? he thought. He closed the door and hurried to his kitchen.
Using a sharp knife, he sliced into the box. As he pulled open the cardboard flaps, an odd smell of smoke and ashes emanated from the package and triggered a memory.
He was eleven years old again. He stood in a gravel alley behind a wooden frame house and rubbed a welt on his arm.
"That’ll teach you," his mother said. "Give them to me."
She thrust out her palm. Slowly, he uncurled his fingers, revealing a box of matches. Behind him, next to the garage, a pile of leaves and papers smoldered and smoke curled into the twilight sky. Susie, a raw-boned girl from next door, stomped on the ashes.
"I saw him," Susie said, hands on hips. "Playing with fire. I thought your whole garage would burn."
His mother glared at him. "You’ll never amount to anything," she said.
Head lowered, he slinked away. As he passed Susie, she pinched him and whispered, "Loser." His eyes tiny slits, he turned and scowled at her. His mother raised another welt on the back of his neck.
They’re all the same, thought Lawrence. Think they’re better than me. Well, maybe this’ll put me on top, put me in control for once. He sank his hands into the packing peanuts and dug out three glossy, black boxes. The name, Seifer’s, blazed across the front of each in vivid burgundy script. There was a hand-written note:
Thank you for your recent purchase. You displayed fine judgment in choosing the following items from our Black Label Collection:
Allure Cologne -- A potent scent no woman can resist.
Handsome Black Leather Driving Gloves -- Slip them on, feel the masculine power.
Hand-spun Red Silk Tie -- An addition to your wardrobe guaranteed to make the ladies swoon.
Used alone, each is guaranteed to make you irresistible. Combine two for an unforgettable experience. But, be warned, use all three at your own risk. We take no responsibility for what might happen.
Enjoy your purchases, Lawrence, and remember, our goal at Seifer’s is to establish a long, long relationship with each customer.
Lawrence chuckled and opened the first box. Nestled inside black velvet was a brilliant crystal bottle holding two ounces of amber liquid. He removed the cap, extended his wrist and sprayed. He brought his wrist to his nose -- and jerked it away. He covered his mouth and retched. Running to the kitchen sink, he turned on the faucet and immersed his wrist in the cleansing flow. Oh my god, he thought. Sulfur. After a vigorous scrubbing, he hesitantly sniffed again. He wrinkled his nose. Lighter, but still there. What a rip-off. He dried his wrist and retrieved the note. No return address or telephone number. Well, he thought, I know how to contact them. He stomped over to his computer, plopped into his chair and reached for the power button. As he did, he glanced at the screen and froze. The face of a stranger stared back at him from the dark, reflective monitor. He raised a shaky hand and placed it on top of his head. Hair! Thick, luxurious, wavy. He pulled at it, ran his fingers through it, caressed it. He slid his hand to his chin. A cleft for god’s sake. And his nose --
It worked! It really worked!
He sniffed his wrist again. Smelling better. Much better.
He raised his fists in triumph. No more lonely weekends. No more snide remarks or pitiful looks. He glanced at the broken phone still in pieces under his computer. Wait until Miriam gets a load of me, he thought. I’ll show her who’s got chemistry. I’ll show her who’s … Hold on, why bother with her? Let her sit home and surf the Net for a few nights. With looks like this, I can have anyone I want. He scooped up his broken phone. "And," he said to himself, "I know exactly where to start."
He parked his car directly across from the shop, took a deep breath and checked his reflection in the rear-view mirror. Still gorgeous. He sniffed his wrist. The cologne smelled great. Hope this ain’t a dream, he thought. Two unopened black boxes sat next to him on the passenger seat. A little insurance won’t hurt, he told himself. He opened the box containing the gloves and tossed the other onto the dashboard. Hesitantly, he brought the gloves to his nose and inhaled. Leather and a hint of smoke, but nothing worse. He sighed and slipped them on. They molded perfectly to his hands. A surge of energy, of confidence, pulsed from the gloves, through his arms and flamed into his brain. What am I worried about, he thought. I’ve never looked or felt better. Powerful. Ready or not, Jennifer, here I come.
Inside the shop, his feet sank into lush gray carpet. Pedestals, strategically placed around the room, displayed the latest telecommunications gadgetry. Recessed lighting accentuated the black and silver technology, which beeped and hummed, filling the room with white noise. He waited while Jennifer, a trim, ivory-skinned blond in a form-fitting black skirt and silk jacket, waited on a customer.
Completing her sale, Jennifer glanced his way, and her eyes widened. She brushed a wisp of blonde hair away from her face and smoothed her jacket. His eyes caressed her curves as she approached. Hope this stuff works, he thought. Last time I was here, she treated me like I didn’t exist. The leather gloves tightened around his wrists. They pulsed and his insecurities vanished.
Jennifer stepped close. "Can I help you, Mr. ..." she asked.
He held out the mangled phone. "Isn’t working," he said. "And friends call me Lawrence."
She reached for the phone and her fingertips brushed the leather gloves. The gloves pulsed. Her arm quivered, her pupils dilated and a pink flush spread across her delicate face. She blinked her eyes rapidly, and then slowly released her breath.
"Wow!" she said. "The phone’s broken, but everything else is working. What do your close friends call you?"
"Fun," he replied.
"And what does that mean?"
He hesitated. The gloves constricted, the confidence flowed. "What if I said, ‘it means a chance encounter, a candlelight dinner, a walk on the beach’ -- would that be the right answer?"
Jennifer’s lips curved slightly upward. "It’d be a start."
"What time should I pick you up?"
"I think you just did."
She glided to the front door and flipped a window sign. "Closed for the evening," she said. She held the door for him. As he slid past, she leaned near. "Irresistible cologne," she whispered
He mouthed a silent "thank you." His gloves pulsed in return.
He assisted her into his car and climbed behind the wheel. As he did, the remaining black box tumbled from the dash, spilling its contents onto her lap.
"What a beautiful tie," she said. She checked the label, ran a finger over the material. "And the texture, mmmm. I love men in ties. Let’s see how it looks on you."
Lawrence hesitated. He wasn’t supposed to use all three. But, why not? What could possibly go wrong? He grasped the tie and his gloves pulsated. Energy, confidence, and power streamed into his body. The tie grew warm, the pulse increased, the power surged. Energy flamed into his brain, dislodging thoughts, disturbing memories of smoke, ashes -- and women. Now was his chance to take control -- now was his chance to even the score…
The low morning sun filtered through the blinds, casting alternating stripes of light and dark against the walls. Green, liquid crystal minutes flowed to double zero and a radio alarm clicked on. A broadcast baritone broke the night’s silence. "That’s it on the national scene folks - now, the local headlines. School strike continues, woman found strangled on Near North side, and the Cubs lose again. Man, that’s six in a row for the Cubbies…"
Lawrence groped for the snooze bar. Groaning, he slid to the edge of his bed and shook his head. His temples throbbed. He struggled to remember yesterday with Jennifer, but the details were fuzzy. The throbbing intensified. Gently, he massaged each temple with two fingers. The pain shot higher, his fingers followed -- and stopped. He willed a hand to explore further. His new hair -- gone! He stumbled to the bathroom and grimaced at the reflection in the mirror. His hand shook as he twisted the cap off the cologne bottle. He held the bottle close to his wrist, turned his head, wrinkled his nose, and sprayed. Instantly, warmth and energy filtered through his wrist, invaded his blood stream, calmed his aching mind. He turned his head toward the mirror. Better, much better. He dressed quickly. He slipped his tie into his jacket pocket - might need it later -- and pulled his gloves over his hands. He clasped and unclasped his fists. He felt handsome, strong, powerful. Today, he would amount to something. Today, women would know the real Lawrence.
The next morning was gray. In the distance, thunder rumbled. Lawrence sat, fully dressed, on the edge of his bed and listened. The radio crackled. "Two strangled last night, folks. Man and a woman this time. Occurred on different ends of the Loop, but police think they might be related. Urge caution for downtown partygoers. In other news, the school strike enters its tenth day, and the Cubs choke again…"
Lawrence tugged at his gloves. Man? he thought. He opened and closed his fists. The thunder rumbled closer. Small drops ticked against the window, grew larger, louder. He listened, and waited -- and tried to remember.
A black dress swayed sensually past and disappeared into the crowd. Lawrence closed his eyes and inhaled. Her scent lingered, teased his mind. This was the one. He slapped a bill on the bar and stood up. Slender, ruby-tipped fingers touched his sleeve, brown eyes pleaded for him to stay. "Sorry, babe," he said. He straightened his tie. "Destiny calls."
He squeezed through the noisy crowd. From a small stage in the corner of the club, a jazz trio caressed the night. Smoke drifted upward and curled thickly around the slow-motion ceiling fans. He stood on tiptoes, surveyed the room. There -- a well-turned ankle exited the front door. He pushed his way to the entrance. The sounds of a saxophone wailed into the night.
The rain had stopped and the evening was cool. Steam rose from the city sewers, floated a few inches above the deserted street and dissipated into the dark. To his left, the black dress undulated down the sidewalk and turned a corner. He followed. As he walked, he slipped one glove on, then the other. His body quivered, he faltered, then, his energy surged and with powerful strides, he doubled his pace. Confident he would catch his quarry, he turned the corner.
She stood with her back against a wall, waiting. Curve hugging black dress, red scarf, dangling silver belt.
He raised an eyebrow. "Miriam?" he said.
"Hair? Chin? Almost didn’t recognize you, Lawrence," she said. "If this was a movie, I’d have a cigarette for you to light."
"Looking like that, you wouldn’t need much to start a fire." He stepped closer. His gloves constricted.
"I like the new you," she said. "Maybe I was too hasty the other night. Haven’t done much since except buy stuff on the Net. "
Serves you right, he thought. And now, I’ll show you. You’ll get what the others got. Heat from his tie permeated his chest, coursed through his body, met the energy flowing from his gloves and surged into his brain.
"I’ve missed you," he lied.
He placed one hand on her face, just above her scarf, and pressed his lips hard against hers. Her lips parted, she leaned close. His other hand jerked spasmodically, moved toward her throat with a life of its own. Ten inches away, six inches away, an inch away.
The hand stopped.
From behind, an insistent tapping.
Heart pounding, temples throbbing, Lawrence turned.
Shiny black shoes, sharply creased pants, silver badge. One of the city’s finest rapped his nightstick against the brick building.
"Everything okay, Miss?" the officer asked.
Lawrence knotted his muscles, prepared to flee.
Miriam blushed, nodded her head. "Everything’s under control, officer."
Lawrence’s mouth was a thin, straight line.
"Can’t be too careful," the officer said. "Stranglers on the prowl."
"It’s okay, we’re old friends," said Miriam.
Imperceptibly, Lawrence’s shoulders relaxed.
The officer pushed the bill of his cap back with his nightstick. "You’re playing with fire, being out this late. Best be moving on."
"My car’s just around the corner," said Miriam. She slipped on a pair of driving gloves, took Lawrence’s arm in hers and escorted him to her auto.
In the soft, quiet interior, they watched the officer complete his rounds.
Lawrence’s head throbbed and his chest burned. His gloves constricted and the leather armrest contorted in his grip. She would get hers, he thought, as soon as…
The officer turned the corner.
Miriam pivoted in her seat, leaned close to Lawrence. Her scent filled his nostrils. It had changed, it wasn’t like in the club. There was something familiar about it, something wrong…
She slitted her eyes and removed her scarf. "Now, where were we?" she asked.
Her cologne…wait, he thought. He retched.
With cat-like quickness, she struck. She looped her scarf around his throat and twisted. He clawed at the scarf and a black label tore away and fluttered to the ground. With gloved hands, she twisted the scarf tighter and swung his head against the dashboard, knocking a box to the floor -- a black box with vivid burgundy script emblazoned across the front. His eyes bulged. The scarf constricted, pain engulfed his senses. From very far away, Lawrence heard her hiss.
"Found stuff on the Net that changed me, Lawrence. Gave me control. Power. Not like you -- Loser."
Then, smoke, ashes, darkness.
© 2005 by Rick Jankowski
Rick Jankowski tells us, "I'm a published short story writer. Two dozen of my stories have appeared in small presses and various literary publications. I've been nominated twice for a Pushcart prize and two of my Sci-Fi shorts were finalists for The Ray Bradbury fellowship award sponsored by New Century Writer. Currently, I'm hard at work on a juvenile SciFi adventure novel, The Games Thief."
E-mail: Rick Jankowski
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